Posts Tagged ‘reuse


Hangover Saturday

If Thanksgiving is the appointed time for rampant overeating and Black Friday our annual date with discount frenzy, then today could perhaps become enshrined as Hangover Saturday, a good time to reflect on consumption rather than engage in it.

Here a selection of Hangover Saturday thoughts gathered in the course of a restful day:

When people talk about what they are grateful for (on Thursday), they never say, “I’m grateful that I have so much stuff” or “My cup runs over because of those Manolo Blahniks I bought last spring” or “The best thing that ever happened to me is my Lamborghini.” It’s possible they’re just trying not to tip their hand, but I suspect we don’t hear those things because, actually, we all do know better.

Our current economic woes have had one advantage: to clarify the point that consumption is not a selfish indulgence but a patriotic duty, philanthropy flowing ceaselessly towards the wealthy, so that our expenditures can come back to us in the form of jobs, which may be defined as a palliative for massive debt or as a subsidy for patriotic duty, sadly insufficient.

Can't touch that 42% of greenhouse gas tied up in goods and food!

Whoever thought of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was not really clued in to the realities of our economic system. We do our bit to help with recycling at least in some parts of the country, but when we make an (unwilling and modest) start on the “Reduce” component, the whole country goes off the rails. That must be why the EPA report “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices”—which is to say “How to Save the World by Tackling Consumption and its After-Effect, Garbage”—declines to estimate the impact on greenhouse gas production if we ate less and bought fewer things. Instead, it tries to figure out what difference it makes if, for example, we were to capture ALL the landfill gas that percolates up from our trash and convert it to electricity or if we recycle ALL the construction and demolition debris coughed up by the never-ending pursuit of bigger and better (as opposed to affordable) homes and gardens.

The opposite of consumption that most easily comes to mind on Hangover Saturday would be abstention. But consumption also has an opposite in creation, which is or can be blameless and much more fun than just saying no. The best place I know to get a feel for the truth of that proposition is S.C.R.A.P. (, an inspired program in San Francisco that diverts virgin merchandise from the landfill, makes it available for dirt cheap to all those with an urge to create rather than consume, and provides a bunch of jobs into the bargain.

What one might do with scrap

The San Francisco warehouse (on Newcomb between Toland and Selby) is huddled rather inauspiciously under Highway 280, but step inside and be greeted by a carnival of color and texture—papers, fabrics, buttons, doodads, figures, threads and yarn, birds, notions, glass, wood, boxes and containers, table legs and carpet squares,  stickers, ribbons, cards, and vinyl discs. On and on. Not everything leapt out at me as obvious fodder for art, including the industrial-sized potato mashers. For many things, it is immediately obvious why they are not in a store somewhere. In their original identity, the scraps that S.C.R.A.P. offers are not saleable, but as art materials they’re irresistible, guiltless, and very inexpensive.

Over it all hangs an exhibit of unpretentious art: scrap boxes emulating the best of Joseph Cornell, mobiles, a digestive tract laid out in flopping beakers and retorts, quilts, and many other works that demonstrate the virtues and joys of clean salvage.


Absolute Garbage

When you lift the lid off your trash can on a warm summer day, you won’t be much inclined to think of garbage as a relative value. Some things have a fleeting, indefinable essence that shifts with the context. Not garbage. There’s nothing “je ne sais quoi” about putrescence.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that our aversion to garbage is hardwired—a biological absolute. Your chances of survival probably improve if you can’t bring yourself to eat food that’s gone off. Given such a strong proclivity against the overripe, it came as a surprise to me to discover that as late as the 1950s a Dutch farmer could explain to his village government that he didn’t participate in the garbage collection program because he didn’t have any garbage to give away. He lists out the leftovers:

  • Newspapers go to the Christian mission.
  • Empty tins are donated to Stegeman, the ragman.
  • Dirty paper and floor sweepings end up in the stove.
  • Wood and coal ash from the hearth help to firm up the edges of his own farmyard.

That’s it. The list is vaguely reminiscent of our own recyclables sorting litanies, but there’s one stunning difference: once farmer den Boer was done recycling, he had nothing left over. In any event, nothing worth giving to the trash man, he says. What he did with his actual garbage—the putrescibles, that is—we have no way of knowing because he doesn’t include it on the list. To him, I conclude, it wasn’t garbage at all, but pig slop or perhaps fertilizer, to be chucked on the dung heap and plowed under in the springtime.

In other words, garbage is contextual. The anthropologist Mary Douglas famously said that dirt is “matter out of place.” Just so, garbage is food scraps out of place, organics withdrawn from the cycle of life. Which is why it started out as an urban concept.

Garbage in New York

Garbage in New York

Cities are places where leftovers cannot be put to use where they are produced. It took a long time for cities to develop effective waste removal systems, and while leftovers lingered on city streets they transmogrified from fertilizer into filth. An embarrassment in context, a source of disease, an impediment to traffic. Garbage. Once swept up and carried outside the city gates, the garbage transformed right back into its constituent character as agricultural nutrient and farmers stood waiting to scoop it up, paying money for the privilege.

Another transformation took place in the 2oth century, when garbage morphed from an urban concept into a petroleum-based concept. Garbage is no longer fertilizer if you can derive it more cheaply from petroleum. In this country, garbage became just irredeemably garbage. We started sweeping it under the rug, storing it up for the future, hiding it in places euphemistically known as landfill.

Even if garbage is not economically repurposable as fertilizer, it can still be turned into energy—by incineration (which creates more leftovers useful for road building) or by methane recovery (which leaves some temporarily useless dross in place). Just how economical that is still depends on the price of oil. It was quite remarkable how many permits for landfill- gas-to-energy plants were issues when gasoline sold for more than $4.00 a gallon at the pump. There are almost 500 of those landfills in the U.S. already.

What’s more, it’s useful to start thinking of landfill as landmine. The closer we get to the bottom of the natural resource barrel, the more attractive it is going to be to dig all the trash back up and recycle it after all. If the need arises, and most likely it will in the not-too-distant future, trash will transmogrify to ore. In other words, what is true for putrescibles, is also true for durable goods—even if “durable” is a misnomer in times of built-in obsolescence and compulsive consumption.

Durable trash

Durable trash

In times of economic expansion, many of the durable components of our trash are valuable, especially metals. Just last year, there was such a market for scrap metal that scrappy entrepreneurs were declining to wait with their scavenging activities until someone officially discarded their stuff. Manhole covers kept disappearing from the streets. Telephone wires were dismantled. I heard about people pulling up stretches of tram- and rail-line to convert the materials to ready cash at the scrapyard.California even made some legislation to penalize scrap dealers for accepting metals that were obviously stolen (such as those manhole covers and other infrastructure belonging to the people). A month or so later, the economy took a decisive turn south, prices for raw materials fell as demand declined, inventory started piling up, and so did the recyclables in the storage yards of the collectors. The New York Times even recommended that we, concerned consumers, better hang on to those recyclables for a bit if we didn’t want to see them end up in the dump.

I’ve never been much inclined to think we’re in the midst of a rational economic system—and I daresay it’s easier to find people to agree with me in recent times—but it is a significant consolation to realize that garbage is not a terminal condition. To all of you out there who occasionally write to me in despair: yes, it’s embarrassing that we’re creating so much garbage, and, no, it’s not easy to live in the midst of endless wealth and not create so much trash. But garbage is reversible. And though we may not be thoroughly rational creatures, the times are offering a little more incentive going forward to not be quite as dumb as we have been.

July 2018
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